Extreme Measurement and the Trash Guy

“You can only manage what you measure.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve heard this statement so often that I’m not sure whether it’s a valuable heuristic or just a cliché. What I do know is that I (personally) tend to like measuring for two reasons: 1) I’m not good at remembering things that happened in the past, and so measurement provides me with an objective line in the sand that I can use to gauge improvement, and 2) for some unknown visceral reason, it just feels wrong not to do it.

But then I read the story of Ari Derfel, who I call the “Trash Guy” – and this completely shifted the way I look at measurement. Motivated by a dinner conversation with friends, he decided that he was going to “keep” his trash for one year to see what he was throwing away. Starting in December 2006, he stashed his trash in the basement (cleaned, of course) just to see what refuse he (personally) was producing. After some dedicated time measuring and observing his trash-producing habits, he found that his consumption habits and spending habits changed!

Here’s what he says about his “lessons learned”:

Some of the things that I learned are interesting. I learned what I spent most of my money on because by watching a pile of trash grow over a year, I really began to see, “Wow! I spent it on that food, on this electronic, on that item,” and my consumption habits and spending habits became really clear.

The second thing that I learned really powerfully, in addition to what I spend my money on, is what I put in my body. I started to see things pile up. The most commonly talked about are little stacks of pints of non-dairy ice cream that I would eat: pint one, pint two, pint three, pint 12, pint 15. I started to see what lives in my body, and what kind of fuel I’m choosing to put in my body.

Then, I learned where most trash seems to be made, food packaging. Of all the different things that could be making trash, that was really profound to me because I realized that it’s not that big of a problem. I mean, we’ve only been packaging food for 50, 60 or 75 years. So, if that’s the small amount of time in which the problem was created. We should be able to undo the problem. Those are three of the primary things that I learned.

Then I learned that if I composted everything organic, which I did, trash doesn’t smell. That’s an awesome thing to learn because most folks think of the dump or, trash and they think it smells really disgusting. I realized, “Wow! That’s not the case.” If we properly treat all of our organic matter, that’s not going to be a problem.

Measurement can motivate people – in a profound way – to change their behavior. After reading about Ari’s trash escapades, I started thinking about the trash I produce. I’m looking at all those plastic bottles I drink water from with a little disdain now. I’m saving a lot more of those empty Country Crock containers. I’m far more conscious of the proliferation of plastic bags in modern food packaging. I’m really looking fondly at that burlap bag with the 15 lbs of rice in it… I can use that for something else later, when the rice is gone. I’m actually cooking dinner more – from scratch. And I haven’t even started seriously measuring yet.


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